Exotic Aliens

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I recently read the book Exotic Aliens by Valmik Thapar and others about the status of the lion and cheetah in India. It had received some interesting and positive reviews in the literature e.g. Science

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable it was. Often books of a technical nature are drier than a packet of rich tea but this managed to be engaging and is wonderfully illustrated. The plates and figures make it a good purchase for anyone interested in Mughal art and Indian wildlife. The text itself is slightly meandering and I did find myself wondering when the authors would get to the point.

The overarching thesis is that the lions of the Gir forest, and the now extirpated Indian cheetah, are all descendants of escaped “pets” that had been kept in royal enclosures for the purpose of hunting. This is a provocative and interesting question. Many researchers have commented on the apparent tameness of the Indian lion, compared to the African subspecies, and the cheetah seems totally unsuited to most typical Indian habitat. I think the authors make a reasonably compelling case that in certain regions, feral lions and cheetahs were around. However, when we look at the DNA of Indian lions and cheetahs we find that they beautifully match the expected phylogeographic pattern for a natural dispersal. That is, they are most closely related to conspecifics from the Middle East. This contrasts with the hypothesis but forward in Exotic Aliens, where a shipping route direct from the Horn of Africa to India was posited for importing exotic cats. If this had happened we would expect to see Indian lions and cheetahs grouping close to Kenyan/Ethiopian/Somalian members, which we categorically don’t. Overall, a very interesting read, although I disagree with the conclusions.

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